India invokes sun god power in climate survival war

Every morning, millions of Indians worship the sun in the ritualistic ‘Surya Namaskar’, or salutation to Surya, the Sun God. The Indian Railways is en route to inspiring them to more practically use the sun’s power, for a less polluted life and free from trauma of the kind flooded Chennai is suffering. Such climate change devastation increasingly threatens cities worldwide, in one freakish form or the other, any day of the calamity calendar.

Indian Railways is planning to set up solar panels on top of 63,511 train coaches

Indian Railways is planning to set up solar panels on top of 63,511 train coaches

‘Surya’ means ‘supreme light’ in the ancient Sanskrit language and solar power is appropriately lighting up Indian Railway stations and trains, as part of India’s ‘Solar Mission’ to generate a hefty 200 GW of solar and wind energy by 2030. With necessity being mother of invention, there’s little doubt we are entering the solar age, the days of the sun god.

Actually, it better be. Alternative energy sources spell less risks of more dirty wars over oil in the Middle East or elsewhere – more so with increasing population, lengthening life spans, and more consumption of decreasing natural resources.

And here the Indian Railways, the world’s third largest railway network, is becoming one of Asia’s leading green crusaders. The government-owned Railways targets 1,000 MW of solar power (*1) across five years through solar panels atop 63,511 train coaches, rooftops of 7,000 stations and thousands of railway properties countrywide. Call it a rooftop power revolution.

As India’s largest power consumer, the Indian Railways also aims to be India’s largest solar power producer. The solar investment will dramatically reduce the Indian Railways’ annual energy bill of US$ 1.98 billion by $ 449 million – and reduce carbon dioxide emission by about 300,000 tonnes.

Solar panels are proposed atop roofs of 7,000 railway stations

Solar panels are proposed atop roofs of 7,000 railway stations

In effect, South Asia’s largest transporter serves as an unexpected connecting link between extreme weather calamities such as in Chennai and the Paris conference to combat increasingly devastating climate change.

Winning this global anti-pollution war needs green energy forces, but the traditionally doddering White Elephant of the Indian Railways seemed an unlikely candidate to take a leading plunge in this clean power crusade.

A reason for the Indian Railways starring as a green warrior exists in a street in faraway Germany, in Kaiserswerther Strasse, amid the green district of Dahlem in Steglitz-Zehlendorf borough, south-west Berlin. In this affluent area near the Berlin Botanical Gardens exists the Freie University. Established in early years of the Cold War in 1948, the ‘Free University’ has a motto “Menschen aus aller welt” – “People from all over the world”. And among its current students worldwide is India’s Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, who is doing his post-graduate doctoral studies in climate change.

A distinguished chartered accountant, the 62-year old Prabhu was a decade ago India’s Environment minister. Now as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handpicked man to turn around the Indian Railways, the low-profile Prabhu is quietly but efficiently transforming India’s second largest employer (second to the Indian army) into a socially responsible, passenger and eco-friendly entity that operates innovatively with funds not dependent on inexpensive ticket fares.

“Each and every entity must learn to conserve energy,” Prabhu said earlier this August at the India Business and Climate Summit 2015 in Mumbai. “It makes business and economy plan more efficient.”

In national, corporate and household economies, solar power can no longer be looked upon indulgently as some quaint lifestyle option. Alternate energy sources need urgent, unprecedented attention to combat bizarre weather patterns wreaking more regular havoc. It is cruel irony that Chennai which perpetually suffers water shortage should suffer from killer floods after receiving twice the normal amount of monsoon rainfall in December. The cloud burst this first week of December unleashed 345 mm (14 inches) of rain over 24 hours.

After similar cloud burst catastrophes in Mumbai and thousands of lives lost in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in 2013, alternative energy sources are no more options of choice but a necessity for survival.

And so India’s largest public transporter is becoming a key player in India’s commitment to generate 200 GW of solar and wind energy in another 15 years. To help make this happen, one of the most significant outcomes at the Paris climate change conference was India initiating the International Solar Alliance (ISA).

Ajay Mathur, a key Indian negotiator in Paris, said that 22 countries took part in the first meeting of the steering committee of the alliance. The International Solar Alliance idea came from Prime Minister Modi.

After jointly launching the ISA with French President Francois Hollande, Modi said India will host the new organization at the National Institute of Solar Energy near New Delhi, provide land and contribute about $30 million funds for the ISA Secretariat infrastructure.

India will also support ISA operations for five years, said Mathur. As the Director General of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency in New Delhi, Mathur is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, and was former head of the World Bank’s Climate Change Team in Washington DC.

From the ISA to the statutory Bureau of Energy Efficiency, alternative energy sources have to rapidly reach grass roots level. For instance, a rooftop solar system to heat water significantly reduces the major household electricity bill for geysers. That is why trains and railway stations sourcing their electricity needs from rooftop solar panels would be start to households having solar panels as commonly as the water taps.

After conducting field research on trains with solar panels, scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said fitting a solar panel module on the roof of a railway coach can yield more than 7,200 units of electricity every year. If implemented on all 63,511 coaches in the Railways, said the scientists, 450 million units of power can be harnessed and about 108 million litres of diesel (28.5 m gallons) saved each year (*2).

Such potential for anti-pollution winnings appears strikingly evident at the Katra Railway station in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Katra station has the largest rooftop solar plant in the Indian Railways network, a 1 MW solar power plant with solar panels atop the station platforms, over bridge and station buildings. Katra station produces 5,000 units daily from its 1 MW solar panels, with the station only needing 1,700-1,800 units. The station exports the surplus of over 3,000 units to power development department of Jammu and Kashmir.

It’s a one-time investment for a lifetime of savings. With rapidly shrinking costs of installing solar plants at homes (http://costofsolar.com/), clean energy would evolve to the much needed green transport such as battery-operated cars and buses.

In coming decades, petroleum use looks likely to head the same socially ostracized way as cigarettes. The world needs larger investment in other revolutionary energy sources – such as harvesting lightning for electricity. A single bolt of lightning carries about approximately 5 billion joules, the equivalent to energy from 145 litres of petrol.

Circa 1752, Benjamin Franklin nearly killed himself doing R&D on electricity through flying kites with a metal key during lightning storms. He invented the lightning rod to protect homes, and it may be time for the 21st century lightning rods to harvest electricity from stormy thunderous skies to power homes.

Surya, the sun god and Indra, the king of gods and the lord of lightning, will soon be a lifesaving part of simple technology-enabled homes – if governments chose to invest in alternative energy a fraction of the trillions of dollars spent in ‘defense research’ on better ways to blow up our world.

Notes:

1) One megawatt, or a million watts of power, is generally reckoned sufficient to power 1,000-1,200 homes. So 1,000 MW is sufficient to light up about a million homes.

2) For more details of Green Energy Efficiency Practices in Indian Railways 

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai who has been writing for the Statesman since 1990 and Asia Times since 2003 – besides having been a long term contributor for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.



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